Why I Wish Teachers Would Stop Asking Questions Like “What Is the Theme of This Novel?”

Often when I am looking at our blog stats and the search terms that have led people to look at our blog, I find phrases that indicate the traffic is from students on a mission to complete a school assignment. Sometimes they’re rather general and seem to suggest the searcher hasn’t read the book and is trying to pretend they have like, “What happens in X book?” or “What happens in chapter 3 of Y book?” And sometimes they’re fairly specific questions that I assume are an actual essay prompt like, “Is Chaucer’s Wife of Bath feminist?” (and I really hope people are actually citing us as a source for these questions and not plagiarizing us!). Frequently, the questions are somewhere in between, ones I assume are short answer questions for a worksheet designed to test reading comprehension, and these may be the worst. They’re questions like, “What is the theme of Z book?” and seeing them always makes me want to tear my hair hair out because they’re reductive and seem designed to make students misunderstand literature as a field of study and maybe make them dislike reading, too.

The problem with asking a question like, “What is the theme of this book?” is that very few books actually have a single theme. When I review books for the blog, I frequently make an entire list of themes I believe the book has touched on. Asking students, then, what THE theme of a book is, is not a question designed to have them think about, interpret, or engage with a book. It’s a question that’s asking them to read the teacher’s mind. It’s the equivalent of saying, “This book has several themes, but there is one that I personally think is the ‘main’ or ‘most important’ theme. Which theme is it that I’m thinking of here?” That, of course, is frustrating, and it leads students to think of learning about literature in entirely the wrong way. (Disclaimer: I admit there are some stories that do have a fairly obviously “main” theme, which I will discuss more in a follow-up post!)

There are ways to be correct or incorrect when interpreting literature. Krysta talks about that at length in this post, but some examples are that you can make an argument for which there is no evidence in the text, or you can make an argument that is contradicted by evidence in the text which you did not sufficiently engage with. However, when students go through school being asked questions about books that amount to guessing what the teacher’s personal opinions of those books are, they begin to think that literature is a “BS subject.” That there’s no way to be truly right or wrong about the text itself; there’s only being right and wrong about what it is that the teacher wants you say. This makes literary interpretation seem arbitrary. And even if students think the teacher’s opinions are valid, it makes literature seem reductive: “Book A is about only this one (obvious) thing.”

I don’t teach middle or high school literature classes, and I recognize there are a lot of considerations about what is taught in the classroom and how questions are asked; there are clearly people with more expertise on this topic than me. However, I do wish more teachers would find ways to help students understand that interpreting literature is a nuanced process. There might be more than one right answer; there can also be wrong answers. The point is to explore those answers, not to reduce stories to worksheets with clear right and wrong answers that match what the teacher wants to hear.

Look for my upcoming follow-up post discussing what texts are chosen to be read in the classroom and how that might affect how students understand the process of interpreting literature!


21 thoughts on “Why I Wish Teachers Would Stop Asking Questions Like “What Is the Theme of This Novel?”

  1. bluereadergal says:

    Teachers have a curriculum to follow so…there’s that. I think in my opinion, that it should be open discussion about how do you feel about the book? The main characters? What do you think the author was doing? What was their thinking? As you said there is no wrong or right answer as long as it’s backed up with thoughts and quotes from the story?

    I remember doing “The Great Gatsby” (was okay to read) “Slaughterhouse Five”(not a fan) “Romeo and Juliet”(was a bit hard to understand language but got overall concepts), “Heart of Darkness” (did not like it ugh). — I”m sure some others that I did that I can’t recall.

    I like this post…it makes you think!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I get that maybe they are required to teach about themes, but I hope most have some leeway when it comes to how they do that. Are they going to say there’s only one theme? Will there be a multiple choice test where there is only one “right” answer? Or will there be more class discussion about the possibility of multiple themes?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    we weren’t taught English literature in school or even regional language or national language didn’t have this kind of question so I don’t have anything to say here but I agree book explores many topic or theme and it sometimes hard to point just one or main theme and it can vary from reader to reader.


  3. Krysta says:

    I’ve seen a surprising number of teachers using multiple choice tests for English class. I once saw a teacher at a fancy prep school (that shall remain unnamed) hand out a worksheet set to students for their novel study. And then she just read the answers out loud to them–no discussion, no room for interpretation. I think this may be partly that many teachers are overworked. It’s a lot easier to scan a multiple choice test than it is to read an essay and give feedback on someone’s original interpretation and use of evidence.

    Also, grading an essay would require that the teacher has read the book recently and is familiar with the quotes being pulled, so they can know if they are being used in context. My high school teachers were pretty obvious about how they hadn’t read the assigned books in probably ten or twenty years–whenever they first got the job.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t good teachers out there or that no one teaches literature effectively. However, the teachers I had in school and quite a few of the teachers I had now are more about saving their own time than they are about diving deep into the course content. I can’t say I blame them, but, yeah, the experience for students is not exactly exciting, and it’s not giving them a clear picture about how English actually works as a field of study.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. readingwsam says:

    I get that. If anything I think books with multiple themes push for an even MORE open discussion. Some people will be able to see certain themes a bit easier than others based on their experiences as well.


  5. J.J. Adamson says:

    My son had to do a paper on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the teacher *gave* the students a theme that they had to write about. I was just scratching my head trying to help him because it wasn’t a very-well thought-out idea and I couldn’t see how that would have been Shakespeare’s intention. It was a great way to make sure my son didn’t enjoy the play. He wants to form his own interpretations. He also wanted to enjoy the dirty jokes and get into the story, but that had nothing to do with the assignment.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      One of the things I was thinking about when I was drafting the follow-up post I have for this one was how I had to transition from being given specific essay prompts in high school to being told in college that the prompt was “write an 8 page paper about anything in this book.” And the first couple times that I had to figure out what was worth writing a paper about all on my own were a bit hard!

      I also taught a writing course while I was in grad school, and one of the things multiple students brought up was that writing essays was boring if they didn’t care about the topic, and they would like it so much better if they could write about whatever they wanted. So I started saying they could write something based around a specific prompt OR whatever they wanted, and…I never had a single student who didn’t write an essay based on the prompt I gave them! And I get it. It’s easier to just use the prompt than to come up with something yourself, but it was very interesting to see no one take advantage of “write about what you want” after they complained about it so much.

      Anyway, I do like the idea of giving multiple essay prompts students can choose from, and also adding “you can pitch me a different topic idea if there’s something else you want to write about.” I do think teachers have varying degrees of capability when it comes to creating essay prompts, and I too would be rather annoyed if I thought the one given prompt was kind of boring and narrow and maybe didn’t even make sense!


  6. Lory says:

    The point of studying literature is to enter into and engage with the book, not to give correct answers on any kind of test. It’s not necessarily bad to ask about the theme (or themes, preferable) of a book, but the way the question is asked should send students deeper into the book and into their own thoughts and feelings, not to the internet! Nor should it be a guessing game as to what the teacher’s opinion is. Maybe students should explore what “themes” are in their own lives and then they might find them in books? Life and literature should inform each other, otherwise it makes no sense.


  7. Isobel Necessary says:

    Some posts on my blog get a lot of this kind of traffic. For me, it’s gratifying to be able to help students through what I write, but as you say, plagiarism is a concern. I’ve started attaching a disclaimer post on any post which attracts visitors in search of homework help, pointing out that they should reference their sources. Of course, it’s unclear whether this is effective, but it does make me feel a bit better.
    Thanks for sharing this – love what you’ve said about condensing complex texts to over-. simplified and over-assertive comments on “the theme”, too.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      The more I think about how I was taught literature in school, the more depressing I think it is — and I am someone who likes reading and would (generally) have said I liked English class, even when I was frustrated with parts of it. So much always seemed focused on reading comprehension over anything else (or just remembering stupid details irrelevant to the main plot), and the more I think about it, the more I realize even the more “interpretive” parts weren’t that interpretive. If a teacher assigns a passage that says something like, “The battle continued with heavy casualties. Men and women were dying left and right. John, waiting in his tent in the rear, accidentally spilled his cup of wine and watched the liquid drip from the table to the ground, like a symbol of the blood being spilled on the battlefield” and then asks “What does the spilled wine symbolize?” that’s just a reading comprehension question! It sounds like I’m interpreting the text or doing something “smart” with it because you’re asking what something symbolizes, but it literally SAYS THE ANSWER IN THE BOOK! It’s just a question designed to see if I read the book and remember it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Linda I PagesandPapers says:

        You’re right, there’s nothing wrong with reading comprehension, especially if you’re talking about a book that’s difficult to understand, but that should definitely not be the main focus. In uni, we never really talk about the content as the profs just take for granted that we’ve understood it or at least are smart enough to read a summary. Thus we’ve more time to actually interpret the story, which for me is much more rewarding.


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